James Orr (1844–1913), theologian, was born in Glasgow on 11 April 1844, the son of Robert Orr, an engineer, and his wife, Montgomery (née Hunter). He began school in Manchester and Leeds before, when he was about nine, both his parents died. Living with Glasgow relatives, he became an apprentice bookbinder. In 1865 he entered Glasgow University to prepare for the United Presbyterian ministry. He was moulded in philosophy by John Veitch, the last representative of the Scottish common-sense school, and in lesser degree by John and Edward Caird, early advocates of idealism. He graduated MA with first-class honours in mental philosophy in 1870, winning a Ferguson scholarship that enabled him to remain at Glasgow for two further years. In 1872 he graduated BD and shared in the lord rector’s prize for a penetrating critique of David Hume that he later published in revised form (1903). From 1868 to 1872 he also attended the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall in Edinburgh and during most of 1873 preached as a probationer at Trinity Church, Irvine, Ayrshire.
From 1874 to 1891 Orr was minister of East Bank United Presbyterian Church, Hawick, Roxburghshire. On 7 April 1874 he married Hannah Fraser, the daughter of James Gibb, a shoemaker from Glasgow; she was to survive him. He became chairman of Hawick school board, campaigned for the reduction of liquor licences, and was known as a Liberal, one of his four sons being named William Gladstone. He helped to draft the United Presbyterian declaratory statement that in 1879 repudiated any total endorsement of Calvinism. Six years later he obtained a Glasgow DD by examination. In 1891 he delivered his church’s Kerr lectures, published two years later as The Christian View of God and the World, which showed originality in teaching the coherence of an incarnation-centred world-view. The book remained influential a century later.
The lectures secured Orr’s appointment in 1891 to the United Presbyterian college in Edinburgh as professor of church history. In 1894 he published one of three replies to the anti-supernaturalist Gifford lectures given by Otto Pfleiderer of Berlin, and in 1895 and 1897 lectured in North America. The resulting books, especially The Ritschlian Theology and the Evangelical Faith (1897) and The Progress of Dogma (1901) criticizing Adolf Harnack, the German theologian and church historian, cautioned against the subjectivist trend in German theology. Writing in The Progress of Dogma:
A God in process is of necessity an incomplete God – can never be a true, personal God. His being is merged in that of the universe; sin, even, is an element of His life. I hold it to be indubitable that God, in order truly to be God, must possess Himself in the eternal fulness and completeness of His own personal life; must possess Himself for Himself, and be raised entirely above the transiency, the incompleteness, and the contingency of the world-process. We are then enabled to think of the world and history, not as the necessary unfolding of a logical process, but as the revelation of a free and holy purpose; and inconsistency is no longer felt in the idea of an action of God along supernatural lines – above the plane of mere nature, as wisdom and love may dictate – for the benefit of His creature man.
In 1896, when the Free Church approached the United Presbyterian church with a proposal of co-operation, Orr urged merger instead and became joint convenor of the United Presbyterian union committee. At the eventual creation of the United Free Church in 1900 Orr was transferred to the chair of systematic theology and apologetics at its Glasgow college but, perhaps partly because of hostility to his pro-Boer stance during the South African War, he failed to secure its principalship two years later. He edited the United Presbyterian Magazine (1896–1900) and with his friend and Glasgow colleague James Denney co-edited the Union Magazine (1901–4) and the United Free Church Magazine (1904–6).
In 1902 Orr seconded Robert Rainy’s general assembly motion not to proceed against another colleague, George Adam Smith, for his advocacy of higher criticism. Yet, as Orr explained in The Problem of the Old Testament (1905), he dissented from the growing acceptance of that approach. In the same year God’s Image in Man, based on the 1903 Stone lectures at Princeton Seminary, argued that supernatural interruptions of the evolutionary process were essential to account for the emergence of humanity. From 1906 Orr’s prolific writings became more popular in tone, a tendency culminating in the republication of four of his articles in The Fundamentals (1910–15). His Revelation and Inspiration (1910), though explicitly repudiating biblical inerrancy, cogently defended a high estimate of scripture. His final years were spent chiefly as general editor of the conservative International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (5 vols., 1915). After illness caused by a weak heart, he died at his home, 4 Hampton Court Terrace, Glasgow, on 6 September 1913 and was buried in Cathcart cemetery, Glasgow, on 9 September.
Tall and broad-shouldered, Orr was tolerant of opponents and, though sometimes abrupt, markedly kind to students. He swam against the tide of contemporary British theological opinion, but his influence was more widely felt in North America.
Principal Source: David Bebbington’s article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- The Christian View of God and the World (1893)
- The Ritschlian Theology and the Evangelical Faith (1897)
- Neglected Factors in the Study of the Early Progress of Christianity (1899)
- Progress of Dogma (1902)
- David Hume (1903)
- Ritschlianism; Expository and Critical Essays (1903)
- God’s Image in Man and its Defacement in Light of Modern Denials (1905)
- Problems of the Old Testament Considered with Reference to Recent Criticism (1906)
- The Bible under Trial: Apologetic Papers in View of Present Day Assaults on Holy Scripture (1907)
- The Resurrection of Jesus (1908)
- Side-Lights on Christian Doctrine (1909)
- Sin as a Problem To-Day (1910)
- The History and Literature of the Early Church (1913)
- ‘The Holy Scriptures and Modern Negations’, ‘The Early Narratives of Genesis’, ‘Science and Christian Faith’, and ‘The Virgin Birth of Christ’, in The Fundamentals (1917)
- The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed.) (1939)
- Gary J. Dorien, The Remaking of Evangelical Theology, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
- George Eyre-Todd, ‘Rev. James Orr’, in Who’s Who in Glasgow 1909.
- Jeff MacDonald, ‘Book Review of A Call for Continuity: The Theological Contribution of James Orr‘, Layman Online, May 26, 2005.
- Gavin Basil McGrath, ‘James Orr’s Endorsement of Theistic Evolution’, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 51/2 (June 1999): 114-121.
- Philip Schaff, ‘Orr, James’, New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1953.
- Glen G. Scorgie, A Call for Continuity: The Theological Contribution of James Orr, Regent College Publishing, 2004.